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Russia's top space company targets moon

Russia's leading space company on Tuesday laid out an ambitious plan to send manned missions to the moon by 2015.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia's leading space company on Tuesday laid out an ambitious plan to send manned missions to the moon by 2015, build a permanent base to tap its energy resources and dispatch a crew to Mars between 2020 and 2030.

The vision presented by Nikolai Sevastyanov, the head of state-controlled RKK Energiya, relies on attracting private investment. But the company's lack of government support calls its feasibility into question.

"We believe that we can fly a manned mission landing on the moon before 2015 funded by sources outside the state budget," Sevastyanov said at a news conference.

Russian government officials have spoken vaguely in support of future moon and Mars missions but have made no specific commitments.

In January 2004, President Bush outlined a plan for NASA to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and then on to Mars and beyond.

Sevastyanov said that Energiya, the manufacturer of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft that ferry crew and supplies to the international space station, would rely on those ships during the first phase of its moon exploration program.

The company will first offer a commercial trip around the moon in a Soyuz that could be made around 2009, Sevastyanov said. He added that his company already has talked to foreign investors interested in the project, but refused to give names or details.

"The use of the existing rockets will help reduce the program's costs and lower risks," Sevastyanov said.

During the next stage, Energiya plans to employ a reusable craft now under development called the Clipper.

The Clipper, which will have six seats compared to Soyuz's three, would be capable of delivering crews to the international space station and could also become the basis for future moon missions.

Sevastyanov said it would cost around $1.5 billion to complete research and build a fleet of five Clipper spacecraft. Energiya so far has relied on its own funds while conducting preliminary design work on the ship. The government has not yet awarded a contract for the new spacecraft to Energiya.

Sevastyanov said the Clipper could be commissioned between 2012 and 2015.

He said that Energiya had offered the European Space Agency a place in the project and that the negotiations were continuing.

During the second stage of the moon program, Energiya plans to fly six manned missions to the moon estimated to cost around $2 billion, Sevastyanov said.

Finally, Energiya hopes to set up a permanent moon base complete with a nuclear power plant and equipment to start tapping helium-3 as an energy source to satisfy the energy demands back on Earth around 2020.

Scientists believe that the moon's supply of helium-3 could be used in futuristic fusion reactors on Earth that would generate electricity without producing nuclear waste.

Sevastyanov said that a moon exploration program envisaging the delivery of 10 tons of helium to Earth would cost about $40 billion.

A mission to Mars could be launched between 2020 and 2030, Sevastyanov said.

"Our expertise in long-term space missions makes us confident that we can ensure life support for a manned mission to Mars," Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov said.

Energiya's ambitious plans contrast sharply with the post-Soviet meltdown of once-glorious space program that launched the first satellite in 1957 and made Yuri Gagarin the first man in space on April 12, 1961.

A flow of oil income that's flooded Russian state coffers over the last few years already has led to an increase in military spending, and space officials hope to get a share of the nation's oil wealth.

But despite the recent fund increases, Russia's space budget stood at around $660 million last year compared with NASA's budget of $16.5 billion.